Tag Archives: Accountability

Fewer Texts for Deeper Understanding

by Lorna Collier

In their new book, Beyond “Teaching to the Test”: Rethinking Accountability and Assessment for English Language Learners, literacy specialists Betsy Gilliland and
Shannon Pella explore ways teachers can provide a more equitable education for
English language learners.

Using fewer—but high-quality—texts can work better than using many texts, say Pella
and Gilliland. The benefits are varied:

Rather than having to struggle to keep up with the basic idea of many texts, ELLs only need to master the content of a few texts or even a single text before working on understanding the language structure and other textual elements.

“If you have one really good text, first they figure out what it means, but then they can access and start thinking about how it is constructed,” says Gilliland.

“Kids become experts on specific texts. They can tell you not just what it was about,
but how it was made and why it was made that way.”

Grammar can be taught in terms of its functionality within the text being studied,
says Gilliland, as opposed to saying, ” ‘here’s a rule, memorize it and then we
hope it transfers into your writing.’ ”

“Teachers might be surprised how much farther you can go with a single text in
teaching a variety of different things,” says Pella, who taught secondary school
English for 15 years. “That was one of my biggest ‘a-has’ as a high school and
middle school teacher.”

The pace of teaching slows when students go back again and again to just a handful of
texts, “taking time to really unpack and analyze them,” Pella says.

She believes this makes the learning experience “much more thoughtful, with more
depth,” than what occurs when teachers use rigid pacing guides.

And when ELLs develop awareness of text features, they can access the same grade-
level material their mainstream peers are using, Pella and Gilliland point out—which
provides equity.

Learn more about this new book.

Lorna Collier is a writer and editor based in northern Illinois.

Read more in the article “Flipping Accountability on Its Head” in the September 2017 Council Chronicle.

Read a sample chapter or order the book.

Connected Educator Month, The Challenge

homepageThroughout the month of October, NCTE has been a theme leader, covering “Innovations in Assessment“. Throughout the month, we have also been issuing a challenge: How can we re-envision assessments for accountability and equity?

In the debate over the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act over the past year, many teacher groups have come out strongly in opposition to continued yearly standardized testing of all students, noting their often disastrous impact on the learning environment in schools and the inability for testing results to provide a complete picture of student learning. Many members of the public have also expressed their dissatisfaction with overtesting students, with families across the country (over 20% in New York) opting their children out of state tests this year. However, many civil rights organizations, natural and traditional allies of teachers, have vehemently opposed any reduction in testing or states’ accountability to act on the basis of the inequities that tests uncover. They argue that if we don’t test all students every year, we have no way of knowing whether students in certain communities or vulnerable or traditionally underserved groups—such as students in poverty, students of color, those with disabilities, or English language learners—are not learning what they need to know to be successful in adult life. Addressing these inequities is a crucial civil rights issue, and unless inequities are measured, they are easy for policymakers and district leaders to ignore.

Holding leaders accountable to their responsibility to ensure that ALL students have access to a high quality education and graduate with the skills they need to be successful in college, careers, and civic life was a driving force behind the debate about ESEA fifty years ago. Ensuring equity is a key civil rights issue. However, relying on yearly standardized testing as the sole measure of success is a deeply flawed approach to addressing the issue. Challenges in the current debate over reauthorization of ESEA reveals a lack of understanding about alternative ways to meet this imperative.

We invite you to join us in the challenge to envision what an accountability system of the future might look like, one that:

  • Engages the need for equity head on while also ensuring that evidence of student learning is gathered in ways that are consistent with good instructional practice
  • Mirrors the ways that educators themselves effectively use evidence to improve instruction
  • Measures the full range of important contributions to student learning and development, providing a more holistic view of student progress

It is also essential that any new system focuses on holding the whole educational system (including state policymakers) accountable for its results, not individual teachers or their students.

We’re inviting people with innovative ideas in this arena, particularly those who are already experimenting with new approaches, to share them through a series of online discussions during Connected Educators Month. NCTE will be continuing to explore this challenge beyond October, and we hope your contributions during CEM will launch deeper collaboration with us in the coming months. If you are interested in working with us on this issue but can’t commit to doing anything in October, please get in touch anyway. Have an approach to share? Let us know! Contact Darren Cambridge, NCTE director of policy research and development at dcambridge@ncte.org or +1-202-270-5224.

Theme II: Assessments and Accountability, a Competitive, Punitive System

Alex Valencic, 4th grade teacher

Last month, 24 teachers and school leaders, mostly NCTE members and ranging from early childhood educators to high school technology coaches, gathered at NCTE Headquarters in Urbana, Illinois to share their concerns. They were joined by one of the US Department of Education’s Teacher Ambassadors, Matt Presser, a literacy instructional coach from New Haven, Connecticut, who was in town as part of the Secretary of Education’s annual Back-to-School Bus Tour. (See my previous blog, Bringing Washington to the Teachers.)

Tara Olsen
Tara Olsen, Elementary Instructional Coach

 The conversation began with teachers from all levels expressing concerns about the way that assessments are being used for accountability purposes. Too much time is being spent on testing, with results slow to arrive and of little practical use in improving instruction. When new tests are added, old ones often don’t go away. For example, educator Scott Filkins, English teacher, Champaign Central High School, noted that improving ACT scores at the high school level is still stressed in Illinois despite the addition of the PARC assessment, yet ACT and PARC value writing in differing ways. So teachers feel pressured not only to teach writing to the test, but to teach to two different tests. Many of the teachers felt that they had to “play the game” rather than “do what’s right for kids,” amounting to “educational malpractice.”

These teachers certainly aren’t opposed to assessment. Formative assessment is integral to their practice. However, they diagnosed the model of assessment being imposed upon them and their students as a symptom of a larger disease, a punitive and competitive model of education fundamentally incompatible with teaching as a profession. Schemes that judge schools and teachers purely on the basis of a single test score demonstrate a lack of trust in teachers to use their professional expertise to develop curriculum and choose instructional strategies that best support students’ learning. Funding educational programs through competitive grants rather than according to equitable formulas leaves many schools without the resources they need to innovate and improve.

NCTE has a number of position statements on assessment. They range in topic from machine scoring to formative assessment that truly informs instruction. NCTE has issued standards for the assessment of reading and writing at the K-12 level and a white paper on writing assessment in higher education.

NCTE is working on several fronts to capitalize on opportunities to improve assessment and to address the underlying issues of harmful competition and de-professionalization (which I’ll address in a later blog.) NCTE’s Assessment Story Project is collecting and analyzing the actual experiences of teachers across the country with assessment, surfacing both challenges requiring innovative policy solutions and powerful practices developed by educators at the local level.

During Connected Educator Month in October, NCTE is leading the Innovations in Assessment theme to help showcase assessment practices that truly support powerful literacy learning. NCTE is issuing a challenge during the month for participants to envision a transformed accountability system that addresses the crucial need to identify inequities across schools, districts, and student subgroups while also aligning with the practice of expert teachers. This dialogue will begin in October but continue throughout the year.


The Complicated Relationship between Assessment, Accountability, and Equity

capitol buildingThroughout this month, NCTE is posing the following challenge to the greater education community: How can we re-envision assessments for accountability and equity?

It’s been a challenge at the heart of many discussions in Washington, DC, over the course of this year as politicians considered the reauthorization of ESEA, grappling with the desire to decrease our use of standardized tests and the need for some measure to identify inequities in our schools.

On April 13, 2015, 41 organizations wrote a letter to Chairman Lamar Alexander and Ranking Member Patty Murray expressing their concern that despite the bipartisan nature of and progress made on ESEA, certain constituencies might be forgotten, particularly the “most vulnerable students,” including minorities and students with disabilities. They emphasized that ESEA must:

  1. include language of accountability whereby states must identify schools where students may not be meeting goals and intervene to rectify;
  2. require states to report on all different types of student groups to make sure all are achieving;
  3. mandate states to intervene and remedy disparities in allocation of resources; and
  4. insure that the US Secretary of Education has the authority to ensure ESEA is implemented and that “the most vulnerable students are protected.”

Three weeks later, 12 of the 41 organizations issued a press release to express their opposition to “anti-testing efforts.” They explained, “[S]ome standardized tests are particularly important to the civil rights community because they are the only available, consistent, and objective source of data about disparities in educational outcomes. . . . These data are used to advocate for greater resource equity in schools and more fair treatment for students of color, low-income students, students with disabilities, and English learners.”

A number of civil rights groups, however, recognize that there are issues with the current accountability system and understand the need for multiple measures of assessments. On October 28, 2014, a few months prior to the April 13 letter, five of those signatories, in addition to six other civil rights organizations, sent a letter to President Obama, the Senate and House Majority  and Minority Leaders, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to “demand accountability for equity in public schools.”

In that letter, the organizations recognized that the current accountability system “has become overly focused on narrow measures of success and, in some cases, has discouraged schools from providing a rich curriculum for all students focused on the 21st century skills they need to acquire.”

Their fifth recommendation, informative assessments for meaningful 21st century learning, stated:

A system of assessments should document both student and school system progress using tools that evaluate deeper learning skills (e.g., critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, communication, and creativity). . . . Assessments should be valid for the students and purposes for which they are used, comparable in quality, and able to be reliably scored. . . . They should also be used as diagnostic tools for determining student acquisition and application of knowledge, should identify students’ strengths as well as their learning and cultural needs, and should be used to support individual students and educators. Measures should also be used to assess whether individual and collective education systems are moving toward meeting objectives related to greater equity in educational opportunities and achievement.

Like those groups that recognize the need for multiple measures and deeper learning skills, NCTE understands the importance of not relying on just one day, one test, but instead on assessments made throughout the day and year to assess the progress of students.

The 2015 NCTE Education Policy Platform states, “Assessment should employ multiple measures, focus on growth, and be appropriate for specific learning situations. . . . New and innovative forms of assessment may prove more valid and better able to contribute to student learning and school improvement than standardized tests. We recommend . . . :

Using standardized tests only to give leaders the yearly data about students’ literacy learning they need to make evidence-based decisions to promote and hold themselves accountable for equity. Data must be disaggregated for all subgroups at the school, district, and state levels. Using testing only for the purposes and in the manner for which it has been proven valid. (For example, tests designed to measure school performance should not be used to evaluate individual teachers or their teacher preparation programs.) In addition, tests should be used in ways that minimize time away from instruction, employ sampling when possible, and offer appropriate accommodations to students with special needs without excluding them from challenging literacy learning opportunities.”

How do YOU think we can re-envision assessments for accountability and equity?



The Opt-Out Movement

capitol buildingBoycotting services or goods has historically been an effective form of advocacy, either to highlight injustices or make a statement of one’s belief. Look no farther than the Montgomery Bus Boycott or Grape Strike and Boycott. The opt-out movement is employing similar tactics. NCTE shares the movement’s opposition to over-testing and to accountability systems based on a single standardized test, but it pursues change primarily through engagement with policymakers rather than direct action. Nevertheless, we recognize that this movement is impacting policies at the state and federal levels and contributes to the larger movement for powerful literacy education. It is also a cause of concern to civil rights groups, a concern that will be addressed in my next blog.

In the last couple of years, parents, students, and teachers have chosen to opt out of standardized tests all over the country. Four of NCTE’s policy analysts filed reports discussing the opt-out movement and policies in their states. In PARCC Opt Out, Lauren Wilkie wrote that the Illinois legislature passed a bill to allow students to opt out of PARCC exams, but the governor has threatened to veto it. Leslie Roberts listed the Consequences for Students Who Opt Out of the M-STEP in Michigan. Erin O’Neill describes Students Protesting PARCC Test in NM, and Aileen Hower notes that Students who are still learning English fuel Philly opt-out movement. Although the opt-out movement was attributed to “white suburban moms,” these reports and articles published throughout the country describe a diverse group of people opting out. They include conservatives and liberals, whites, blacks and Hispanics, wealthy and poor. They come from urban and rural areas, small states and large states, Common Core and non–Common Core states. Clearly, thousands of parents, students, and teachers are making a statement.

Opt-out numbers range from 1% in Minnesota (small but still noticeable) to 15% in New Jersey and over 20% in New York. Colorado had huge opt-out numbers in some districts.  In Washington , opt out by juniors was as high as 53%. The reasons given by parents, students, and teachers are varied: opposition to Common Core and intervention by the federal government; too many tests; standardized tests taking too much time away from actual learning; teaching to the test interfering with creative and analytical thought; the reduction or elimination of other subjects, such as the arts and athletics; English Language Learners not given enough time to prepare; computer skills not adequately learned; and tests being tied to teacher and school evaluations, resulting in punitive and damaging consequences.

Policymakers are taking notice at the federal and state levels. Accountability and testing is one of the key issues being debated in ESEA. Policies diverge throughout the country as states grapple with constituents who have made clear that they are unhappy with standardized testing. States such as Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky and Wyoming have clear no opt-out policies. California, Utah and Oregon, on the other hand, allow opt-out. Some states, such as Arizona have filed bills to allow opt-out.

Indiana, Illinois,  Missouri and Tennessee have no policy. Although there is no specific opt-out policy in Oklahoma or West Virginia, there are consequences. Alabama suspended a student for refusing to take tests over a 3-day period. Some states allow exceptions, such as South Dakota which exempts English Language Learners. Other states, like Idaho , allow substitute tests; Connecticut allows juniors to take the SAT in place of the SBAC. Maine eliminated Smarter Balanced as an assessment, creating a panel to determine their own.

In its 2015 Education Policy Platform, NCTE articulated its belief that, although we need an accountability system that ensures equity, we believe that multiple measures better reflect student learning. That belief is supported by NCTE’s most recent policy brief, published in 2014, by the James R. Squire Office of Policy Research, How Standardized Tests Shape – and Limit-Student Learning, which concluded that standardized tests should be one measure amongst many. Through our Assessment Story Project and position statements such as Formative Assessment that Truly Informs Instruction, NCTE is working hard to improve assessments and educational policy through research and practice. Advocating for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act over the last year has provided us with an opportunity to educate lawmakers about alternative ways to measure progress toward educational equity other than standardized testing of all students, every year.

This month as part of Connected Educator Month, NCTE will be tackling the theme of Innovations in Assessment to discuss the many ways to equitably and fairly assess student and teacher performance. We look forward to your participation in creating alternative approaches to accountability for equity that truly support excellent literacy instruction and build on the expertise and innovation of teachers.